Funeral Music

funeral musicI picked up the first two of Morag Joss’s award-winning Sara Selkirk series — Funeral Music and Fearful Symmetry — at a book sale in the spring, mostly because I like the name Morag, and also because it was appealing to have a cellist as the detective. The books take place in Bath, somewhere I’ve read about but never been; this was another piece of their appeal. Ancient Rome! Jane Austen! Lovely. I settled in.

Funeral Music is a rather complicated mystery, beginning with the murder of Matthew Sawyer, who is the Director of Museums and Civic Leisure Resources in Bath. There are several red-herringy paths about antiques and collections and suspects (and of course he wasn’t a terribly nice man), but after each suspect is interviewed, he or she says the same sensible sort of thing: do people murder other people because they wanted a job/ didn’t get a raise/ had an argument with someone? In your experience?

Well, no. The stakes are usually higher. So it’s up to Sara Selkirk, world-famous cellist, to find out just what those stakes were. Sara is dealing with personal trauma from the recent death of her partner Matteo, and she can’t play; a musician’s version of writer’s block. So she has plenty of time to ask questions of her friend Sue who works for the Great Bath, Sue’s mysterious boyfriend Paul, the museum curator Olivia, and other characters, before she pieces the solution together. She has an intimate view of the case, as well, because she’s giving cello lessons to DCI Andrew Poole — a relationship that becomes warmer and warmer as the book goes on, despite Andrew’s being thoroughly married.

I confess: though the plot of this book was entertaining and complex enough, and though the writing was serviceable, and though there were some fun descriptions of Bath and of cello lessons, I did not enjoy reading Funeral Music. This book sneers at its characters in a way that grew increasingly unpleasant. Each man is set up as self-important, deluded,  and ridiculously sexually obsessed. Each woman is set up as vain, shallow, needy, clingy, and ludicrously easy to offend. The only exceptions to this rule are Sara, Andrew, and a frail, elderly musician named Edwin. Other than that, we are invited to laugh at and despise every person in the book. Here’s an example of what I mean: in this scene, Sara is visiting Edwin, and the woman who is helping to care for him has just brought them tea and left them in the garden:

“Old Serena, she likes the lavender best. Old-fashioned, she says, that’s what she likes. She’s from Sydney, you know. Doing Europe. Bath’s a revelation to her, of course.” He chuckled. “She went to see that film, Emma. Raved about it. Oh, I said, borrow it. It’ll be in the bookcase.”

He began to snigger and some of his tea went down the wrong way. As he recovered he reached out to touch Sara’s arm and said, in a voice high-pitched with mirth, “And you know what she said? She said, ‘Oh, is the book out already?'”

Edwin’s wholehearted and malicious pleasure in Serena’s mistake was infectious; they both shook with laughter.

Oh. Ha ha ha. Someone who is generously caring for you and obviously likes you isn’t as well-educated as you are! Well, I can certainly see how that would be a knee-slapper.

Honestly, this sort of thing was ongoing, and ruined the book for me; there was so much evident us/them pleasure in it. I did finish the novel, because I wanted to see who did it and how it turned out. But now that I know, I don’t think I’ll read the second novel. The warmth between Sara and Andrew isn’t enough to warm the rest of the book.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 4 Comments

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains

ladys life rocky mountainsThis book, perhaps Isabella Bird’s most famous, is actually her fourth. By the time she wrote it in 1879, she had already travelled from her native England to Australia, to Hawaii, 800 miles on horseback through the Colorado Rockies, and on a trip through Asia that included Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. Bird was one of the most famous traveling women in the world at that time — she’d made a name for herself as someone who could ride, shoot, care for herself and others, and remain a gentlewoman. So, sure, the Rockies, with avalanches and mountain-climbing and grizzly bears and desperadoes. NBD, right?

The book is written in the form of letters to Bird’s sister. It works really well: the eagerness to communicate what she has seen to someone she knows well, along with the strong desire to receive letters in return and not feel so alone, provides a framework for writing down every little detail. Bird’s descriptions of the beauties of the new Colorado territories are sometimes as rhapsodic as anything Anne of Green Gables could provide:

From the dry, buff grass of Estes Park we turned off up a trail on the side of a pine-hung gorge, up a steep pine-clothed hill, down to a small valley, rich in fine, sun-cured hay about eighteen inches high, and enclosed by mountains whose deepest hollow contains a lily-covered lake, fitly named “The Lake of the Lilies.” Ah, how magical its beauty was, as it slept in silence, while there the dark pines were mirrored motionless in pale gold, and here the great white lily cups and dark green leaves rested on amethyst-coloured water!

Bird’s anecdotes, however, are not restricted to the magical and the amethyst. She thinks nothing of riding miles in sub-zero temperatures over nonexistent trails. She is happy to work as a cattle hand, a cook, a housekeeper, or a woman-of-all-work in order to earn her keep. She has a keen eye for beauty, cleanliness, and gentility, and sharp words for those families who don’t value it:

By the whole family all courtesy and gentleness of act or speech are regarded as “works of the flesh,” if not of “the devil.” They knock over all one’s things without apologising or picking them up, and when I thank them for anything they look grimly amazed. I feel that they think it sinful that I do not work as hard as they do. I wish I could show them “a more excellent way.” This hard greed and the exclusive pursuit of gain, with the indifference to all which does not aid in its acquisition, are eating up family love and life throughout the West.

On the other hand, when she meets “Mountain Jim” Nugent, a famous and deadly desperado, she has nothing but praise for his manners. This murderer, hung about with furs he’s trapped, barely restraining his ferocious dog, and missing an eye (you could not possibly ask for more from a Colorado pirate), politely offers Bird the only seat in his cabin, reads her poetry, makes sure she is warm and safe, and guides her wherever she wishes to go. Nature’s gentleman! Later in the narrative, he confesses his dreadful life — alas, too late! — and says that she has inspired him to make a change. It’s even more beautiful than the Lake of the Lilies, from a Victorian perspective. Later, this gentleman gets compared to a theological student who ought to be a gentleman, and is not: one of the funniest bits of the book.

If you like travelogues, you absolutely could not do better than this classic. Colorado isn’t exotic today, but it was then: the elk, the eagle, the grizzly, the corral, the ranch, the Puritan. And, of course, the mail, delivering letters, making the journey known.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration | 12 Comments

The Accidental

accidentalThe title of Ali Smith’s The Accidental lets us in on what she’s doing. The plot is not a new one: a stranger breaks in on a dysfunctional family, works her mysterious magic, and leaves them completely different. You’ll have seen this in dozens of variations, innocuous and not-so, from Mary Poppins to Rebecca. The Accidental, however, is a lovely, jazzy, postmodern twist on the old story, and it leaves the reader wondering in a different key than we started in.

At the beginning of the story, the Smart family are on holiday in unfashionable Norfolk. Each member of the family is divided from the others by their secrets. Eve, the mother, has vicious writer’s block, and can’t fathom writing any more of the heavily-marketed “autobiotruefictinterviews” that have brought her 15 minutes of fame. Michael, the English-lit professor stepfather, has been screwing his undergraduate students in order to feel powerful and interesting, and he’s so self-congratulatory that he has no attention to give to the rest of his family. Magnus, the 17-year-old, took part in a prank during the school year that resulted in a classmate’s suicide, and he can’t stop thinking about it: “They took her head. They fixed it on the other body. Then they sent it round everybody’s e-mail. Then she killed herself.” His world has become literally gray and dark, but no one notices his despair. Astrid, the 12-year-old, has been suffering from bullying at school, obsesses about the way things begin and end (dawn, death, food, waste) and sees everything through the eye of her expensive camera.

Then Amber arrives, just in time to interrupt Magnus as he’s trying to hang himself in the bathroom. (“I found him trying to hang himself in the bathroom,” she says, and everyone around the dinner table laughs without the faintest shred of belief.) Without telling a single lie, Amber manages to convince everyone in the Smart family that she’s there for some reason other than the true one. (And what is the true one? We don’t know either.) Eve thinks she’s another one of Michael’s undergraduates; Michael thinks she’s something to do with Eve’s writing.

What happens next is a meditation on mediation. Amber takes Astrid’s omnipresent camera and throws it in the river, then teaches her how to be present to arbitrary authority (including random bullies) and how to see her life through her own eyes. She seduces Magnus, forcing him to witness the reality of sex and female desire through a different lens than that of pornography and death. She ignores the besotted Michael outright, pushing him into a dark and fractured poetic gift that is lonelier, but far more real and human, than the clichéd phrases he’d been using with his undergraduates. She never says one word that isn’t the unmixed, unmediated truth, and almost no one ever believes her.

And Eve? Amber accuses Eve of being a phony, a fake. She demands more from her than the pre-manufactured stories (the autobiotruefictinterviews, really) that she’s been telling of her own life: lost loves, meet cutes, having babies. Amber shakes her by the shoulders, sharply; she blows smoke; she kisses her hard on the mouth, trying to break through. Eve resists, and resists, and resists. Can she resist the jangling of this accidental chord forever, this new way of looking at the world?

This book isn’t perfect — there are some vague interludes about who Amber “really” is, to do with cinema and the persistence of vision, that never quite gel. But for the most part, this is a wonderful, lustrous novel about the experiences that connect us and those that separate us. It says that there are ways we can look at the world that destroy, and those that can give life, and that we have the power to choose. This may be an old story, but it’s still very good news.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 4 Comments

The Sisters Brothers

sisters brothersIt’s a little difficult to pin down Patrick DeWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers. It’s definitely got elements of the picaresque. It’s a Western, certainly, but not of the Zane Grey variety (nor of the Cormac McCarthy variety, if that’s not obvious.) It’s Gothic, and it’s also weirdly funny. What would you call it? Cowboy noir, maybe?

The novel is narrated by Eli Sisters, notorious killer for hire, who travels with his brother Charlie in the pay of a mysterious and wealthy villain called the Commodore. This time, they are out to murder a man called Hermann Kermit Warm, for stealing something unknown from the Commodore.

But Eli has had enough of this life. Charlie is a drunkard and a quick hand on the trigger, but Eli yearns, incongruously, to be a storekeeper; he tries to make personal connections with the women he meets, including striving to lose weight to please them; he sticks with a slow and mutinous horse out of pity; he wishes his brother respected him more. He wants to slow down and think things through.

Sadly, the Sisters brothers’ life isn’t oriented toward the good things in life — peace, contemplation, human contact. It takes a lot of bloodshed and a lot of loss before Eli finally arrives at a place where his tender (and frankly sociopathic) heart has room to flourish; where he can literally cultivate his garden. (It’s a quite 18th-century vision in many ways, escaping widespread bloodshed for rationality and peace.)

Here’s a thing: DeWitt is obviously contemplating masculinity in this novel. What does it mean to be the epitome of the tough-guy — a Western vigilante — and still love the smell of dry-goods, the look of a wide blue ribbon given by a prostitute, the sense of a conversation with another human being? What’s possibly limiting about the way he considers this is that almost all these humanizing touches are associated with the feminine. Eli reaches out to women — prostitutes, a woman bookkeeper he meets — and to a man whose dandified use of perfumes and ointments sets him apart from the rugged and bloody norm. The end of the novel is similar: a peaceful resting place associated with the Sisters brothers’ mother. What is DeWitt implying? If it’s the old trope that women are a civilizing influence on men, that’s a bit old-hat. When I reviewed Blood Meridian, I said it had been a very long time since I’d read a book with no women in it. This book has women in it, but they are two-dimensional figures. DeWitt hints that they might have more to their stories (especially the brothers’ mother) but never fleshes this out or gives the women any serious agency.

I enjoyed this book well enough. It was light and sometimes outright funny, especially when Eli was dealing with his poor unfortunate horse, Tub. The relationship between the brothers was realistic and balanced, too; the bickering, the power dynamics, the loyalty, the little well-known habits. This is a fine entry in the cowboy noir genre, if not a great one — even if it’s the only one.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 6 Comments

March: Books 1 and 2

March Book oneGrowing up in the South in the 1970s and 80s, I learned about the 1960s Civil Rights movement in bits and pieces. It was recent enough to be in a lot of people’s memories, and too recent to be covered with much depth in history books (if in fact we ever got past World War II in our history classes). I picked up what I know mostly from book, movies, TV, and the occasional memory of an adult who felt like talking about it. So, for me, John Lewis’s graphic memoir, co-written by Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell, is an invaluable resource in that it fills some of the gaps in my knowledge and allows me to see how the various bits and pieces I already knew about fit together.

march_book_two_72dpi_lgThe two books, the first in a planned trilogy, begin with Lewis’s youth in Alabama and follow his work as an activist in Nashville and eventual leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) through the March on Washington in 1963. He tells of the lunch counter sit-ins, movie theatre stand-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the Children’s March in Birmingham. He and his associates are arrested repeatedly, and they refuse to pay bail and contribute to the unjust system. And they refuse to fight back, despite the many shocking acts of violence committed against them.

March ArrestLewis focuses primarily on events that he was involved with, and he was involved in enough to offer a broader, yet more specific view than I’ve encountered before. He’s involved in enough to give a broad view, but close enough to the events to be able to share important details. Having a scattershot education about the movement meant that I didn’t quite know what the Freedom Riders were doing, beyond promoting equality, but Lewis explains that they were raising awareness of the non-existent enforcement of the desegregation laws related to buses and bus stations. (This may be common knowledge to everyone else, but it was entirely new to me.)

The writing is mostly serviceable, but a book like this doesn’t need remarkable writing to be worth reading. The story is what’s remarkable. The inauguration of Barack Obama is used as a framing device for the story, especially in Book One, which show Lewis sharing his memories with some young visitors to his office on Inauguration Day. I didn’t find the device entirely effective, but it did lead up to a arresting set of images in Book 2, in which Aretha Franklin’s singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is juxtaposed with a 1961 attach on the Freedom Riders at a Greyhound station in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s horror and hope brought together.

March ImageThe art is often able to communicate both the horror and the hope in ways the words cannot. Powell’s black-and-white drawings are, to my non-artist’s eye, quite effective. Often, the images are able to convey much more than words would be able to, and the art makes it possible to take in this huge story in a short amount of time. To read a similarly comprehensive account of the Civil Rights movement would take weeks, but this format allowed me to gain a lot of knowledge in just a few hours. If you’d like to fill in similar gaps in your knowledge, I recommend these. And I look forward to the final book.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, History, Memoir, Nonfiction | 6 Comments

The Reverse of the Medal

Reverse of the MedalI confess. I enjoy the Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books more when they’re set on land than when they’re at sea. Does that make me a bad fan? After 11 books, I’ve gotten used to the nautical lingo and am far less lost during sea battles than I used to be, but the misadventures at home in England were a welcome change. Although I suppose these misadventures weren’t much welcome to Jack and Stephen because things get very dark.

As the book begins, the Surprise is in Bridgetown, recovering from its previous disastrous but not unsuccessful mission and preparing to go home to England. Both Stephen and Jack have reason to worry about their wives. Stephen fears that Diana believes the rumors of his unfaithfulness. And after encountering a surprise relation in the West Indies, Jack is worried about Sophie’s reaction to his own past. (The introduction of Sam Panda is a wonderful moment in a book with many wonderful moments.)

It doesn’t take long after the Surprise returns to England for Jack to get in trouble. Honestly, whenever Jack earns some money, someone needs to take it from him for safe-keeping because good fortune so quickly turns to bad when Jack is on land. In this case, a stock tip turns into scandal with possibly dire consequences.

But despite the seriousness of Jack’s situation, this is a fairly cheerful book, partly because we see Jack’s good work and strong friendships pay off. I don’t want to say much, but there’s a scene involving a pillory that may well bring tears to your eyes. Sophie is as steadfast as ever, and Jack’s men show loyalty and care. Jack has made enemies, and those enemies make progress in bringing him down, but his friends are there to help bring him back up.

And Stephen proves to be a most marvelous friend. Once he realizes what Jack may lose, he gathers friends and funds to give Jack a future. By the end of the book, Jack’s situation has changed, and Stephen is well on his way to finally unmasking the intelligence agent within the British government. They have a lot of work to do to make things right again, but there’s hope that they can do it.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 6 Comments

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

Searching for Sunday

Mine is a stubborn and recalcitrant faith. It’s all elbows and motion and kicked-up dust, like cartoon characters locked in a cloudy brawl. I’m still early in my journey, but I suspect it will go on like this for a while, perhaps until my last breath.

Like Rachel Held Evans, I sometimes find that having faith feels like being in the middle of a cloudy brawl. This year in particular has caused me to view some of my most cherished and often hard-won beliefs in a different light, and it’s not easy to have to rethink foundational ideas or accept the unpleasant consequences of significant beliefs. As I’ve been working through this process, I decided to acquire a few books by people who’ve been thinking about the same kinds of things and let them help me think through these thoughts. Most of these are newer books, because, frankly, I don’t have the energy for John of the Cross or Augustine of Bonhoeffer right now.

First up is this memoir and examination of church life by Rachel Held Evans. I’ve followed Evans’s blog for years, and much of her journey resonates with my own. Like her, I grew up in a conservative evangelical church and spent much of my young adulthood in that world, but in my late 20s, frustrated and sometimes downright disgusted with the church’s view of women, I had to figure out a different way to have faith. Leaving my church was the only way I could keep believing. I was lucky enough to find a fairly progressive Baptist church in my city and then to find another when I moved to DC. If such churches didn’t exist, I doubt I could have maintained my faith. (Eventually, I decided I needed a church experience that centered more on the Eucharist than on the sermon, so I moved to the Episcopal church. But that’s another story and a far less complicated one.)

Evans structures this book around the seven sacraments, and each section includes stories of her own experiences with that sacrament, as well as stories shared by her friends and blog readers. Within that structure, she offers a roughly chronological account of her own life within the church. We see her growing frustration with a community that doesn’t encourage hard questions or that offers “easy” answers when those questions appear. We experience her hope when a new community is born that embraces people just as they are, and we see her despair as that community sputters to its end. By the end of the book, she has found a new spiritual home in an Episcopal church. But she’s also found church at a conference for gay Christians and their allies, a community that offers healing for abused women (and healing oils for their supporters), and at a grotto filled with miniature replicas of famous sites made from bits of glass and garbage, turned into art.

I think that this book would have meant the world to me 15 years ago, when I was fighting the same fight Evans describes. Now, much of it involves revisiting a previously well-worn path, although there is value in that. Still, the later chapters resonated somewhat with where I am now, trying to not to roll my eyes at expressions of faith from my past when similar expressions pop up on my Facebook feed from old friends. It’s easy to get cynical about a way that we’ve rejected, but as Evans writes, “Cynicism may help us create simpler storylines with good guys and bad guys, but it doesn’t make us any better at telling the truth, which is that most of us are a frightening mix of good and evil, sinner and saint.” It helps to remember where I came from and how I felt then when interacting with people who’ve found it best to remain in that world.

One of the things Evans does really well is express how difficult it is to have doubts and how liberating it is to talk about them. Her chapter, “Easter Doubt,” is particularly good as she discusses how it feels to step away from the church for a while, knowing what people think about such “Easter Sunday Christians.” She writes that “there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude it takes to whisper just one of them out loud.” I think the reason the church is important, whether it’s an actual church building or a more informal community of believers, is that, at its best, it offers a place to speak these questions out loud. It’s a shame that speaking those questions often leads to shunning or a patronizing offer of prayer. But when it offers room to sit in those questions, to live in those doubts, and to come before an altar together despite those doubts and questions, church is a beautiful thing.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Religion | 13 Comments

Not the End of the World

Not the EndI’ve set myself a small informal project of getting caught up with previous books by some of my favorite authors who don’t have unreasonably long backlists. That basically means Kate Atkinson and Sarah Waters. I’ve read all but a couple of their books, so it’s something I could accomplish by the end of this year.

For Atkinson, I’d read all of her books except Human Croquet and her story collection Not the End of the World. I’ve had Not the End of the World on my shelves for a few years, so that’s where I started. It was okay. Good, not great. Atkinson is a master of the novel, and these stories, while good, do not show her at her best, nor to they show the form at its best.

I’ve noticed that a lot of short stories these days seem to be set in our world, but not. I’m thinking, for instance, of George Saunders’s stories in Tenth of December. Atkinson’s stories seem to be set in the near future (or the near past now, given that the collection was published in 2002). People watch Buffy and Star Trek: Voyager, and lots of people seem interested in Greek mythology. It seems possible to mate with a God in human form, and a receptionist keeps a submachine gun under her desk. It’s the end of the world–or not.

The stories are linked together, but each one stands alone. A major character in one story might be referenced in another. The final story provides the ultimate linking up, as we see all the stories come together in a final image that’s dark and sad and a little funny, as is typical with Atkinson.  But beyond that, it’s not important to be able to see all the connections. It’s just nice to see a familiar name pop up two stories later.

I don’t have much to say overall about these stories. They’re all varying degrees of odd, populated with families that can’t quite connect and people finding themselves in unexpected situations. To explain what happens in them would spoil them, as a lot of the pleasure is in seeing the situation unfold. They’re good stories and probably a little better as a group than on their own. If you’re looking to try Atkinson, I’d recommend starting with a novel instead, probably either Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Life After Lifeor Case Histories, depending on what appeals to you most.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Echo

The EchoLots of people have been talking about Andy Weir’s space disaster novel The Martian and the upcoming movie version. I haven’t read that, partly because at around the same time I first heard about it, I also heard about James Smythe’s The Explorer and read that instead. It’s creepy and strange, as much about the human mind as it is about exploration. I really enjoyed it.

It turns out that The Explorer was the first in a planned quartet of novels, The Anomaly Quartet, so named because the stories involve astronauts’ encounters with an anomaly that seems to cause time and space to behave wrongly. The Echo, the second book in the quartet, picks up 22 years after the journey chronicled in The Explorer. Twin brothers Mira and Tomas have organized an expedition to find out what happened to the Ishiguro and to learn more about the anomaly. Mira will command their ship, the Lära, and Tomas will stay behind to run the mission from the ground. Mira, the novel’s narrator, is confident that things will go better this time:

Every part of this process has been designed to ensure that nothing can go wrong. I cannot stress that enough: the level of control that we have enacted on this entire operation. Entry to the Lära is as controlled as anything else. There is no room for error. Everything must be checked, processed, run through before we are allowed on. There are exacting checklists full of bullet points that take days to tick off. It’s these things that can mean the difference between life and death. This is how the systems can be guaranteed to work when we need them to, how we can streamline them and make them user friendly while retaining the safety: they are prepared and perfected, and instigated with absolute care and diligence.

Hahahaha! He should have known better than to say something like that. “Guaranteed to work.” Sure it is. It’s probably no surprise that this book concerns itself with the human capacity for self-deception. Mira and his crewmates deceive themselves and each other again and again. Facing the anomaly forces them also to face certain truths about themselves, but they cling hard to the lies.

I don’t want to share a lot about the nature of the anomaly, because it’s more interesting to watch it unfold. I don’t remember a lot of details about The Explorer, other than the fact that the anomaly messes with time and memory. Those details aren’t essential to understanding this book, and the way these explorers approach the anomaly causes them to experience it differently from the crew of the Ishiguro. It still messes with time and memory, but Mira is more aware more quickly of what’s going on than Easton, the narrator of The Explorer, was. His self-deception is not about the nature of the anomaly but about the nature of his relationship with his brother and what that means for the mission.

These books are science fiction adventures that appear to dip into the supernatural. I say appear because at this point it’s not clear whether the anomaly is a supernatural phenomenon or just something that cannot make sense according to known scientific principles (although one could argue that that’s exactly what the supernatural is). The series so far is less about the triumph of science than about the limits of science. What remains to be seen is whether science can grow to meet the challenge of the anomaly in the last two books of the series. It might take a while to find out—I can’t find a publication date for the next book. I hope it’s still coming. I’m curious to see what happens as the anomaly grows and moves closer to Earth.


Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 13 Comments

The Wolf Border

Wolf BorderI didn’t realize how much I cared about the characters in Sarah Hall’s latest novel until I got to a major plot point near the end of my lunch break a few days ago. That afternoon at work was long. And the last 100 pages of the book were so intense that when I finished it that evening, I had to get up and walk away from the book a few times because I was so worried about how things were going.

The Wolf Border focuses on zoologist Rachel Caine, originally from Cumbria and now living in Idaho observing wolves. Her relationship with her mother back in England is difficult, and visits home are unpleasant. So she’s not much tempted when a wealthy earl offers her the chance to help reintroduce grey wolves to Cumbria. It’s a controversial program, as people are worried about their children and livestock, and having a well-known expert who’s also a local could help. Rachel is uncomfortable with the idea of working for the gentry, and she has no desire to move back home. But an unexpected series of events cause Rachel to change her mind—and her life.

A lot of this book concerns itself with how people make decisions about their lives. What unconscious, instinctual forces are behind the things we do? As Rachel watches wolves raised in captivity learn to live on their own, she is learning to do things she never thought possible. She always saw herself as a sort of wild thing, following uncomfortably in her mother’s independent footsteps, but when her circumstances change, she changes with them. She’s able to do things and be things that she never imagined. And she’s perplexed by it, sometimes resistant, but something inside her keeps her following this different path.

Hall is in dangerous territory here for me. It would be all too easy for a story like this turn into some sort of Hallmark movie in which the independent woman moves home and discovers true joy in domesticity. But Hall does not do that. Rachel is still in essence the same woman. In fact, her spirit of adventure and willingness to take risks is part of the reason I had my heart in my throat for so much of the final chapters of the book. The changes that happen to Rachel don’t turn her into something different, they just add new layers to the person she already is. It made me think of a recent post by Swistle about how we sometimes have options available to us that we simply can’t see. They might be terrible, ridiculous options we’d never take, but they exist. Personally, I found it especially pleasing to see these kinds of major life shifts happening in a story of a woman in her 40s. I think it’s easy in middle age to feel stuck in who we are and where we are. Watching Rachel grow in the way that she does, while remaining who she is, was heartening.

This is the second novel that I’ve read by Sarah Hall. I really liked her short story collection The Beautiful Indifference but was less impressed by How to Paint a Dead Man, which is technically a novel but read more like linked stories blended together. I really enjoyed this novel and hope to get around to her earlier novels, especially The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North one of these days.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 13 Comments